The opioid overdose crisis in Jacksonville has taxed city resources on a number of fronts, including those not visible to the public, such as the Medical Examiner’s office.
Numerous city hall conversations this year have spotlighted the pressures created by the unnatural and unbudgeted deaths of the overdose crisis.
WJXT reported on a cry for help email to the entire City Council from Medical Examiner Valerie Rao.
There is no room to perform autopsies, Rao wrote: “We have one body on the ground, which is not an ideal situation. Bodies cannot be autopsied because there are no trays and the bodies are on racks.”
Corpses are being turned away, Rao said.
Jacksonville City Council Finance Chair Garrett Dennis described the situation to us as “bodies piled on top of bodies” ahead of the meeting.
At the end of Rao’s testimony, Dennis suggested moving a new building up in the capital improvement plan, as he has been hearing from people who are outraged at the concept of a loved one’s body laying on the floor.
A new building, to replace the facility built in 1968, will be required down the road. The facility serves 1.6 million people in a five county area, including Duval, Clay, Nassau, Hamilton, and Columbia Counties.
The Finance Committee spoke to Rao on Tuesday, who delineated her concerns, in light of population growth, the drug crisis, and a continuing uptick on homicides.
There have been 2,698 decedent cases this year: up from 2,484 last year.
There were 589 drug cases last year, and Rao says her office is “way over” that pace this year.
“We have no space,” Rao said of the building with a capacity of 50, adding that the administration suggested a “mobile cooler facility.”
“I need a commitment that this is going to be a temporary measure. We need something permanent,” Rao said.
In the next two weeks, they will have an estimate for the cost of that facility, which will replace seven employee parking spaces at the Medical Examiner’s office. They expect to have specifics by early January.
Rao noted that Orlando has a brand-new building that cost $16 million.
“We’ve been asking for a new building for a while now,” Rao said, but she wanted to leave the details to the Lenny Curry administration.
“We need a lot of space. In terms of square footage,” Rao said, “I have no idea.”
Rao wants a “fast-track” solution, given that the population will continue to grow, and given the increase year over year in recent years.
Rao was elusive in terms of specific data, however, saying that she didn’t have the figures with her, and wanted to be “accurate and scientific.”
This lack of specifics irked Councilman Danny Becton, who pressed Rao to outline the case for a new facility in business needs, making projections about what is needed.
“I’m trying to get you as an administrator to understand we need more information to help you solve this problem,” Becton said.
Councilwoman Katrina Brown urged that Rao bring people who were capable of answering specific questions to the next Finance Committee meeting.
Other Council members — including Matt Schellenberg — noted that Rao has failed to offer specific needs and proposals, dating back even to the budget process in August.
Administration members say that a permanent facility build could take two years, and that the Orlando building was built in 2010, which means the $16 million may be a lowball estimate.
“The bigger issue at hand is the opioid crisis,” said one Curry administration member, which is driving the death increase that is taxing the facility.
The lack of room creates issues for medical examinations, including questions of DNA transferring from one body to another because of overcrowding; such close proximity could compromise exams and investigations.
“We have to be careful we don’t lose our accreditation,” Rao said, saying that substandard facilities could compromise that status, before amending her statement, saying that in her 38 years in the business, cross-contamination has never been an issue.
A Curry administration member noted that accreditation was not brought up in meetings between the ME and the Mayor’s Office.
Councilman Reggie Brown suggested “mobile morgue” trailers, such as those being used elsewhere.
“This would suffice in terms of our body count until we build a new facility,” Brown said, urging Council members to “back down on the whole panic” that frothed up in the discussion of this issue.
Councilman Becton also urged caution, saying the discussion of cross-contamination and the like “opened up a Pandora’s Box” that attorneys could exploit in challenging the Medical Examiner’s findings.